Millbrae California sits centrally located on the San Francisco Peninsula near the Bay and is roughly eight miles from the coastal town of El Granada that sits on the Pacific. A drive from Millbrae to El Granada today, depending on which route you choose and how much you like to meander, will take you between twenty and twenty five miles. But that was not always the case, when the road network on the Peninsula was first designed (most of which we still use today) there was a road that made a near beeline from Millbrae due southwest to El Granada, and it still exists today.
The landscape that surrounds this road has changed a lot since the1860’s. The stories of how and why it changed tells a narrative that brought the region of Northern California from the place where the old west met the sea to what we know as the modern world. All the stories are much more than we will go over here, but if recounted correctly they tell a tale of the landscape surrounding this road that revolves around the two life bloods of any society: money and water.
At 280 and Larkspur drive, near the western end of Millbrae Ave is an entrance to the most popular park in San Mateo County, the Sawyer Camp Trail. A short walk on this trail will take you to a beautiful, interesting and historically important place, the San Andreas Dam. Built in 1868, it dammed the creek that ran north-south down the resort town of Crystal Springs and in effect made a bridge across the valley for travelers to head west across to El Granada. The scene here is serene and it beautifully balances the powers of human and nature as it sits squarely on the San Andreas Fault. The earthen dam reportedly bent a bit, but proudly did not break in the earthquake of 1906.
Just up the road from the dam near the top of the ridge lies the dairy farm of W.J. Fifield. Fifield and his brother were operating the dairy farm in in 1906, as they had been as far back as the mid 1860’s. As the dairy was situated on the road to the coast it had to routinely send workers into the town of Millbrae for supplies and business affairs. Such was the case the evening of Tuesday June 22nd 1886 when an employee of Fifield’s, a Mr. Joseph Sine was driving a horse drawn wagon back to the Dairy Farm. Unbeknownst to Sine, his companion on the wagon a man named Peter Coetaneno had plans to ambush him. At the Dam as Coetaneno was asking Sine to let him off the wagon preparing to do something that would eventually make him a wanted man. The next day the Daily Alta, a newspaper out of San Francisco reported that W.O. Booth, a lawman out of San Mateo had issued a warrant for Coetaneno, it reads:
…”calling for the arrest of a Greek named Peter Coetaneno, who is wanted on a charge of murder. The wanted man is about thirty years of age, looks like a Spaniard, weighs about 145 pounds and stands about 5 feet 7 inches high. His hair and moustache are jet black, and on his nose is a peculiar scar. When last seen he wore a black suit of clothes and soft felt hat. Costaneno left Pilarcitos Lake about midnight, June 21st, and presumably started for San Francisco.”
When Peter Coetaneno stepped off the Wagon he turned and shot Joseph Sine twice in the chest. The next day June 23rd 1886 the Sacramento Daily Union described the wounds in detail saying:
…”one (bullet) took effect in the breast, striking the rib, passed around the body and lodged in the muscle of the back. The wound is not necessarily fatal. The officers of San Mateo County are scouring the hills for the would-be murderer. Mr. Fifield says it was a preconcerted plan to kill Sime; that Castino had been waiting two hours on the road before he got on the wagon.”
Lucky for us that Sine must have lived for a few hours to tell his story, the Daily Union reporting “Sine as doing well, and will likely recover” and the Daily Alta reporting the story as murder. Notably the Alta and the Union spelled Peter’s last name differently, neither newspapers to my knowledge ever reported of Coetaneno’s (or Castino’s) capture. As for Fifield’s Dairy Farm the excrement from the cows among other things was enough of a nuisance that in March of 1902 the Spring Valley Water Company took him to court. Later the Water Company purchased his 1,107 acre farm all together.
Spring Valley Water Works that by the 1890’s was one of the monopolys in California but it was the 1860’s when it initiated its enterprise in Pilarcitos Valley west of Fifield’s Dairy. When Spring Valleys first engineer the Colonel A.W. Von Schmidt oversaw the creation Pilarcitos Lake Reservoir in December of 1863 it was such a success that the dam was raised in 1867 to help stave demand. The waters of Pilarcitos Lake were brought to Laguna Honda in San Francisco via a redwood flume and allowed the thirsty city to grow at a time when potable water was being sold by the barrel, for gold.
Over time Pilarcitos Lake became a destination location for San Francisco’s well do to and residents of the SF Peninsula for daytrips, picnicking and fishing. A lakeside cabin was built to host visitors and water quality was analyzed and praised for its ability to be use in brewing beer.
Muskellunge Pike were brought in from the mid-west for the enjoyment of anglers. Luckily the invasive predatory fish never took hold as the Daily Call newspaper sadly reported in 1893. And serious talk of building an electric trolley line to Lake Pilarcitos in 1912. And the lake was advertised as a one of destination spots in San Mateo County by the San Mateo Chamber of Commerce as late as 1930.
In the time period between 1910 and 1926 the Spring Valley Water Company, namely its two largest stockholders Willam Bowers Bourn II and Willam Ralson were openly advertising to the public the glory of the locales owned by Spring Valley.
Bourn and Ralston stood to make a lot of money if their stock in Spring Valley would be purchased by the city of San Francisco. In 1910 Bourn commissioned his friend Willis Polk to design a water temple in Sunol based on the Temple of Vesta in Italy end of the east end Niles Canyon. In an attempt to appeal to SF voters Spring Valley’s own magazine SF Water described the beauty, recreational activities and history of the lakes at Pilarcitos, Stone Dam, San Andreas and Crystal Springs. But it was of Lake Pilarcitos that in July of 1926 SF Water Magazine and an author identified only as “Contributed” published one of the most beautiful run on sentences of all time:
“Here is the most beautiful portion of California, unspoiled by man, a park of Nature’s own making, where beings animate and inanimate reach the perfection for which they were intended; a land of fountains, streams and waterfalls and lakes, of fern and fruit and flowers, of trees and thickets, of sunlight and shadow, of peace and plenty.”
And lone behold fountains were built not only at Lake Pilarcitos but also hundred yards west of the Sunol Water Temple, created to quench the thirst of a visiting public Bourn and Ralston were so eagerly trying to court. These opulent fountains still exists today and designed like so many other relics of the Spring Valley Water Company and the era at large, to appear as though from antiquity. They are four sided and each side has what appears to be a rather menacing face. This ornate relic gives a view into the mentality that the people of the Spring Valley Water Company were trying to present: a lavish image related to a time period that still is very much connected to the settling of the west and the grandiose ethos of Manifest Destiny that drove it, and the Spring Valley’s own subtle ethos that building great infrastructure for civilization somehow connected them to the great civilizations of the past. Whilst I was researching these fountains, through email I was able to make contact with UC Berkley Professor and author of “Imperial San Francisco” Dr. Gray Brechen. The Professor surmised through email:
“The fountains and their faces were probably designed by Willis Polk who was William Bowers Bourn’s court architect. He designed the Sunol Temple as well as other facilities for the Spring Valley Water Company including its headquarters on Mason Street. There you will see terra cotta that mimics water running down the front of the building the way that you see under the faces…”
… “The faces themselves seem to be taken from classical depictions of Neptune and river gods: old men whose beards are running water. Although Polk was not trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he was so good that he may as well have been, and he probably hired others who were since he had one of the leading architectural offices in SF. “
Surrounding Lake Pilarcitos remains an entire network of roads that traverse both north-south and east-west. The roads run along both ridge lines of Pilarcitos Valley and down in the valley along Pilarcitos Creek that runs into the valley of Half Moon Bay along what we now call Highway 92. A road followed to where Pilarcitos Creek meets the Pacific. A place we now call Half Moon Bay but was known in the 1860’s as “Spanish Town”. From Lake Pilarcitos the road to El Granada heads westward, up the hill and down through what is now the GGNRA National Park of Rancho Corral De Tierra, through private property and eventually turn into El Granada Boulevard a public road well known by residents of the Coastside SF Peninsula.
Today El Granada is as scenic and beautiful, as ever. It hosts surf competitions and festivals, it has hotels, and a brewery. El Granada and the surrounding coastal towns have always been beautiful places and today they a destination for tourists and on the wrong weekend may seem crowded. Most of the time however El Granada may be described as sleepy, especially when compared to the scene in Millbrae, when the cars on 101 roar as jetliners scream into and out of SFO. But comparatively it was similar back in the 1860’s as well, from their perspective the El Camino was only a mere eight miles away due east on the road to Millbrae.
About ‘OpenThe SF Watershed’
The SF Watershed is a 23,000 acre open space on the SF Peninsula that is currently closed to the public. ‘Open the SF Watershed’ is an organization founded by Andy Howse, a fifth generation Peninsula resident, who is dedicated to preserving and sharing our local history through education and exploration in a responsible sustainable manner. ‘Open the Watershed’ is working with the SFPUC, local and state officials, and the public, to see the current roadways re-opened for responsible public hiking, cycling and equestrians.